The first takeaway from Gilles Kepel’s new book Away from Chaos is the immense complexity of Middle East politics.
“And he gathered them together in a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). Armageddon. The word sends shivers up the spine; it’s the place where, according to the imaginative interpretation of some, the final battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought. It’s mentioned twelve times in the Old Testament and once only in the New, quoted above.
In the Sahara Desert, Ukhayyad, the son of a powerful tribal leader, receives a camel as a gift. The Mahri camel is not an ordinary breed. It is beautiful, unique. Ukhayyad develops an endearment towards the animal which only grows and runs parallel with his coming-of-age. Gold Dust, its English edition recently republished, follows their bond, as events quickly trouble their tranquillity.
Husayn ibn ‘Abdallah, more usually known as General Husayn, died in Florence in 1887. Born in Circassia in the late 1820s, he was sold as a slave to agents of the bey of Tunis, raised and trained there, ultimately rising to hold some of the most senior positions in the government.
A lucrative international black market exists for nearly every plant and animal imaginable. Donkeys are stolen and slaughtered in Africa for the gelatin found in their hides, which is sought after in China. Otters are captured in Indonesia and Thailand and trafficked to Japan to supply the latest pet craze. Succulent plants are stolen from protected areas in South Africa, the American West, and Peru to be smuggled to collectors around the world. Even insects are the occasional victims of massive heists.
In the 1940s, a third of Baghdad was Jewish. Today, fewer than a dozen remain.
Justin Marozzi starts his survey of Islamic civilization by noting that the Arab world hasn’t had the best of press lately. “Everywhere you look there’s chaos, fighting, bloodshed, dictatorship, corruption, injustice, unemployment,” a Tunisian friend of his tells him.